The trailers for “The Giver,” a dystopian adventure based on the 1993 Newbery Medal-winning novel by Lois Lowry that opens this weekend, features a character who was a mere footnote in this influential young-adult source for such futuristic fables as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent." Not only that, she's Hollywood royalty hiding under a veil of gray hair: Meryl Streep. As the understated though stern Chief Elder, whose gender has been switched for big-screen purposes, she sums up the guiding principle behind “The Giver"’s politely oppressive totalitarian society: "When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong."
Why would the three-time Oscar winner, whose summer releases such as “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Julie & Julia” and “Hope Springs” are usually aimed more at adults, want to dabble in such doings? “She said yes right away,” says Nikki Silver, a producer of "The Giver" along with another Oscar-winner, Jeff Bridges, who co-stars with Streep as the grizzled title character. “She has a good relationship with Harvey (Weinstein, whose company is behind the release) and she wanted to finally have the chance to act with Jeff.”
It didn’t hurt that Streep’s four children had read and loved the book. Silver confirms she was their first choice for the part. "We felt that for the film to work, we had to set up the two philosophies of the community. We had to have an actor who could battle Jeff and match his chops. Meryl would represent that world and Jeff would represent our world."
Weinstein is banking that Streep’s participation helps to widen “The Giver"’s appeal beyond the book’s under-25 fan base to older females as well, especially mothers. "The Newbery seal is stamped on the book," Silver says, "and Meryl is our Newbery seal."
However, Streep isn’t the only A-list actress who has lent her stature to supporting roles as authority figures in YA adaptations and other sci-fi yarns. Cate Blanchett hunted Saoirse Ronan’s main character in 2011’s “Hanna.” Playing similar authority figures, Jodie Foster faced off with Matt Damon in last year’s “Elysium,” Kate Winslet was the villain of the piece in “Divergent” this past spring, and Tilda Swinton took control in summer breakout “Snowpiercer.” This fall, Patricia Clarkson shows up in “The Maze Runner” and Julianne Moore is in the power seat in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.”
This is partly due to Hollywood economics. There's a paucity of juicy leading roles for women in bigger-budget features. And the indies don't pay as well. “Actors like to act,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “And while some of these veterans might prefer leading roles, they know that being exposed to a large audience in a high-profile film helps to extend their careers. It gives them recognition with a younger audience that might not know them from their heyday – which, in some cases, was 30 to 40 years ago."
While it’s true that being top-billed in a high-quality art-house movie might bring more awards attention, “working in a more rewarding indie film won’t pay them back the way that some of these featured roles will,” he adds. “In our fast-paced pop culture, it’s crucial to stay in the limelight.”
Thus the trend of hiring esteemed stars for relatively small parts extends to other genres as well, especially comic-book adventures and action thrillers. Where would the smash hit “The Guardians of the Galaxy” be without Glenn Close and her bizarre pretzel-like hairdo as intergalactic police chief Nova Prime. For her, being in a superhero blockbuster – even a spoofy one – was a dream come true. As she told the “Daily Mail,” “I’ve always wanted to be in a movie like this. They are so much fun. The film takes the piss out of itself and I really like that. I like to do things that are different than what I’ve done before and this genre has become quite significant.” It probably also introduced her to a generation who know nothing of her bunny boiling proclivities in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction.”
Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford carry on the tradition of tough-guy cameos in “The Expendables 3,” also opening this weekend. All they have to do is get paid millions to show up to work for a few days. No pressure. After his participation in the “Dark Knight” trilogy, Gary Oldman signed on for this year’s RoboCop remake as well as "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." Anthony Hopkins added a certain cachet as Methuselah in “Noah” and as Odin in the “Thor” franchise. Ben Kingsley in last year’s “Iron Man 3” and Robert Redford in this summer’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gave an extra oomph to their villain roles.
And Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart carry on in the “X-Men” series, no matter that their latest appearances in this summer’s entry were reduced to guest spots while the younger versions of Magneto and Prof. X played by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy hogged much of the action. That they continue to be a presence, however, proves that the filmmakers know how invaluable the actors are to fans.
Lately, Morgan Freeman (“Dark Knight’ trilogy, “Oblivion,” “Transcendence,” ”Lucy”) and Stanley Tucci (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” “The Hunger Games” films, “Transformers: Age of Extinction”) seem to have cornered the market on these types of characters. And does Michael Caine do anything else these days but bite-size yet satisfying contributions to Christopher Nolan productions?
Of course, the famous precedent for stunt casting was Marlon Brando playing Jor-El, father to Christopher Reeve’s comic-book crusader, in 1978’s “Superman.” His then-record pay day for 15 minutes of screen time: $16 million total -- $3.7 million for two weeks of work plus a percentage of the gross. Russell Crowe similarly played a ghostly Jor-El, who was dispatched early in the film, opposite Henry Cavill’s Superman in 2013’s “Man of Steel.”
The female equal to Brando’s blockbuster breakthrough was Judi Dench, who deigned to appear as an intergalactic ambassador opposite Vin Diesel – he wooed her by filling her backstage London dressing room with exotic fresh flowers -- in 2004’s “The Chronicles of Riddick.”
It isn’t just prestige that causes the makers of these often big-budget thrill rides to seek out such reliable talent. It also may increase the chances that having such familiar faces in the cast will boost ticket sales overseas, which now account for 70% of the total take at the box office. Few would recognize Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites, who stars as Jonas in “The Giver.” But almost everyone knows who Meryl is – no surname required. ”Hiring internationally established actors is a good investment on the part of the producers, no question about that,” Maltin says.
It also can affect the actual script of a movie like "Transformers: Age of Distinction," where the last third or so of the plot takes place in China. “Bankability often rules casting and content, especially given the international market,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. A dollop of gravitas sometimes is all it takes to draw customers beyond Comic-Con regulars. “I will even say to my own mom, ‘Let’s go see this superhero movie –it has Ben Kingsley in it,’ just to convince her.”